ISIS generally doesn’t respond well to music.
But that isn’t stopping James Twyman, an author and musician based in Portland, Oregon, from planning a trip to ISIS-held territory in Syria later this month to help bring peace to the region through the power of a musical-prayer concert.
“Performing the peace prayers in ISIS Controlled Syria will be the most important and dangerous peace mission of my life,” the self-described “Peace Troubadour” blogged last month.
“Every peace mission I’ve been on has been dangerous, but this journey is without question the most perilous, and in my opinion—the most important,” Twyman wrote. “People everywhere are concerned about the escalating violence in the Middle East, especially with the rise of ISIS, but they don’t feel empowered to be part of the solution. That is what we are about to change.”
Twyman, slinging his Cordoba classical guitar, is scheduled to fly out Jan. 20. He’ll first spend a weekend in Italy getting ready for the show, then will hop a flight to Tel Aviv to meet a handful of supporters and organizers. From there they’ll travel to the Israel-Syria border and set up their musical-prayer homebase in Majdal Shams, an Israeli-occupied Druze town in Syrian territory. (Twyman traveled to the same town in 2013 for a previous peace vigil for Syria.)
“The people there are very anti-ISIS and anti-terrorism—it’s where we’ll set up our base of operations,” he told The Daily Beast.
Twyman is aware of the kidnappings, the high-profile beheadings, the whole war, the State Department Syria travel warning, and all that jazz. He says that, despite his website’s bold phrasing, he is taking all necessary precautions for his potential ISIS-land gig.
“People have this image of me walking into an ISIS village with a guitar on my back,” he said, chuckling. “That won’t be the case. The purpose of this is to get tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people praying. It’s not about me being a superstar idiot in Syria. At this point, we’re not sure how far we will go, but if people there feel they can get me into an ISIS area safely, and then out safely, then we will do just that…The idea is to sing, then get back to safety. We are hoping for something interesting, just not too interesting.”
(ISIS-dominated territory in Syria is too dangerous even for Sylvester Stallone, so chances of Twyman venturing beyond the Israeli-controlled village are rather slim.)
If Twyman’s fellow peace activists can’t get him into a place where he can perform for some people living under ISIS rule, his fallback plan is to play his set in a safe area “overlooking an ISIS-controlled area.” From there, he and his team will sing the Islamic prayer for peace, as the “Peace Troubadour” strums his acoustic guitar.
Regardless of Twyman’s precise location, the mission is to rally as many people as possible, via the Internet, to simultaneously “focus our Affirmative Prayers on ISIS” in order to—miraculously, somehow, in unprecedented fashion—stem the bloodshed through divine intervention. (Godspeed.)
He insists that this has worked before.
Twyman was inspired to start this brand of musical peace activism in 1994, he says, after a friend gifted him a piece of paper that included the peace prayers from all major religions.
“I just began to hear music, and picked up my guitar to play every one,” he said. “This is what I’m meant to do, I thought.”
He says he later traveled to the Balkans during the wars and ethnic cleansing in the ’90s and got invited by a Croatian peace organization to perform in refugee camps. He later traveled to Belfast during the Northern Ireland peace negotiations. (He has written about some of these experiences in his book Emissary of Light.)
Twyman likes to tell a story about how he was invited by Saddam Hussein to perform at the national theater in Baghdad in 1998, shortly before the kickoff of Operation Desert Fox.
“I was brought in there to Iraq before the U.S. began the bombing campaign against [Saddam],” he recalled. “My first book had just come out, and I was in London on book tour, and I was on a talk show in the U.K. I mentioned that I’d love to go to Iraq...then it turned out somebody in the Iraqi Embassy in Great Britain heard that, and within a day I received a visa and an official invitation to come to Baghdad.”
The Daily Beast could not independently verify this claim, but Twyman provided a photo that he says was taken in front of the theater in Iraq following his anti-war concert. The group had just planted a peace pole that read, “May Peace Prevail on Earth,” in four languages.
Ultimately, the guitar-playing peacenik never got the chance to meet the Iraqi dictator who had supposedly invited him to play an anti-bombing set.
“I was told he watched part of the concert, though,” Twyman said.
Next stop? Syria…maybe. If jihadist-related conditions permit.
“When people say I shouldn’t do this because it will make ISIS mad, I say, ‘If we’re thinking that way, then ISIS has already won,’” he concluded. “There is no way to know what will or will not work, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with having a positive attitude or bringing people together, particularly those who do believe in the power of prayer.”